Some retired mine workers are fuming at the Minnesota Department of Health's decision to withhold information for a year, about the death of 35 miners from mesothelioma.
The Health Department said it didn't want to release the information until it had designed a study to learn why so many men in northeastern Minnesota are dying from the rare form of cancer, which is caused by asbestos.
Many mine retirees are living with asbestos-related diseases, and they say the Health Department should be doing more to protect miners' health.
Hoyt Lakes, Minn. – Hoyt Lakes is a company town, built to house workers at the nearby Erie mine, later owned by LTV. Tidy houses sit on shady, curving streets. Bill and Mary Stodola are sitting around the kitchen table with friends, talking about life at the mine, and about asbestos.
Bob Skiba worked for a time as a "zinc man." He combined zinc and asbestos to make liners for the ore crushers. "They used to have asbestos, and you had to mix it with oil and grease," he explains. "Dust flying all over, regular asbestos. And when we poured, we wore an asbestos coat," he laughs in disbelief. "You wore it, that's what you had for protection from the hot heat."
Skiba says he never knew the asbestos could cause a deadly disease. "If I would have, I wouldn't have been playing with it, mixing it, I don't guess," he says with some bitterness. "But you had to do it, I guess. No, I wasn't aware of it."
Skiba retired in 1995. The union retiree group organized screenings, including chest x-rays, for former workers. One in three has now been diagnosed with lung problems associated with asbestos.
"As it gets worse your lungs will break down, to virtually nothing."
"I got it, I guess. I don't know what it is," Skiba says softly. "It's in my lungs anyhow. I'm short of breath, always seems like I'm plugged up, and I tire a little easier than I used to. Apparently it's a progressive thing; I don't know what they can do with it. What do they do with it?" He turns to Mary Stodola. She used to be a nurse. She says doctors can't do anything about asbestosis. "Your tissues in your lungs turn into pearls, and eventually they go into turning into little cavities throughout your lungs," she says. "And it's a progressive disease, as it gets worse your lungs will break down, to virtually nothing."
Her husband, Bill Stodola, says no matter what job you did at the mine, you were exposed to dust. He worked in the repair shop for years.
"The north doors faced the crushers, and you could see the dust roll out of the top of the crushers," he says "And sometimes it would come right in, you'd have to shut the doors because it would come through the shop, and the same thing on other end, the south doors faced the pelletizer and you'd get the soot; you'd have to shut the south doors. So it was the same thing no matter where you went out there."
Stodola has asbestosis, and last year his doctor told him he has mesothelioma.
Stodola says the company instructed workers to wear masks in the dustiest parts of the plant, but the rule was never enforced.
"Nobody was that conscious about it until toward the last, everybody realized what was going on," he says. "They (the company) covered up most of it. You knew darn well it was worse than what anybody said it was."
These workers feel betrayed by the company they worked with for more than 30 years. And now they don't trust the Minnesota Department of Health. They've learned the department sat for a year on statistics about ex-mine workers dying of mesothelioma.
Bob Skiba says it was a terrible decision.
"If the Health Department knows somethings going on and don't say nothing, dump the Health Department because they're not doing their job," he says. "Get them out of there. It ain't doing nothing. Save the taxpayers money. Sorry to say, but that's the way it looks to me."
Mary Stodola says the Health Department should get busy and figure out the cause of the problem, and what can be done about it.
"These guys, there is no help for them. Let's face reality, they're the pioneers in this," she says. "But if what they find with these men will help the younger men at the mines, and make the mining companies follow up and help the younger ones, then I guess the older guys have done something."
The Health Department has apologized for keeping the information secret. It's hoping to get money from the federal government for a study that's likely to cost more than a million dollars and take three years to complete.